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Building an audio PC: Things to consider.

Discussion in 'Recording Gear and Equipment [BG]' started by Venom of God, Feb 16, 2013.

  1. Venom of God

    Venom of God

    Oct 8, 2007
    I have noticed that amongst all the talk of digital recording here, actual computers themselves seem to be where a lot of people are left scratching their heads about what they want a little bit, so I thought that I'd try and help clear a few things up.

    Firstly, what do you plan on using your computer for? Will it be for live use or in a home studio?

    This is an easy one for me; if it's for a studio, get a desktop. They are easier to work with, cooling is vastly superior and you get more choice/bang for your buck when it comes to components.

    Now, if it's for live use this gets a little trickier. If the computer will be doing nothing too resource heavy then a laptop or small form factor computer will probably be okay. If you're going to be running a lot of effects or any other more intensive programs then I'd suggest getting a server case and just mounting it in a rack. The ONLY advantage any other form has over a decent sized stand-alone case is portability, but to me stability is always going to beat that out.

    "But doesn't a server case require me to build the computer myself?" Yes, it does. Honestly, building a computer is not tricky at all, it's just like lego. By building your own PC you will get a LOT more power for your dollar and develop an understanding as to how it all works, so you can fix it yourself if the need arises.

    One of the reasons that I think PC's have a bit of a bad rep is because a lot of the store bought ones are pretty terrible. There is no doubt that generally Apple build nicer systems with a much higher build quality, but they cost way more than the components are worth and these days Windows is actually better optimized and will run faster for a lot of people doing audio work*.

    In this next section I will list all the parts you need when building a computer from scratch and what to consider when buying them. These will also relate to laptop/small form factor parts if you're ever doing upgrades:

    Case: I often start here, as it's nice to have a visual idea as to what you'll be working with. Look for something well built with plenty of room to work in and keep in mind what sort of cooling it comes stock with. Bigger fans are going to be quieter than small fans, avoid anything with 80mm's. Does the case you like come with a power supply? Consumer level cases often will, personally I'd rather choose my own, check the power supply section for more info. My current build features a Corsair brand case, though I am also quite comfortable with Antec's.

    CPU: This can be a tricky one as it's hard to know how much power you need down here, one thing to remember though is that desktop CPUs are different to mobile ones (mobile chipsets are used in laptops, small form factors and all in ones)! An i5 is going to be more than enough for most of you desktop users, I have mine water-cooled and running at 5ghz! If I were forced to use a mobile chipset I would get an i7. AMD make some good CPU's also though I'm less knowledgeable there.

    Motherboard: Match this to your CPU, if it's a standard current-gen Intel chipset then you'll want socket 1155. Look for USB and thunderbolt ports and find something that suits your needs, I tend to buy around the mid-range here as cheap can mean nasty but super expensive boards often just have a lot of stuff you don't need on them.

    Memory (RAM): This one confuses people I think! It's like megapixels on a camera, everyone thinks that more is instantly better but that isn't always the case. 32gig is going to be no better than 8gig if you're not filling it with data! Open up your current biggest project in your DAW, hit play and then check your processes to see how much of your current RAM you're actually using. What is more important will be your timings and clock speeds, I won't go too much into it here but check the link at the bottom if you're interested**. Also, you're probably looking for DDR3 RAM here, check your motherboard.

    Video card: A lot of CPU's these days will have built in video, but we're going to ignore that. You can get a discrete video card with passive cooling for about $30 these days that will do the job fine and make zero noise, I'd rather that than generating more heat on your CPU. If you're playing games or doing anything that is going to require a more powerful card then I'll let you do the research for that yourself!

    Sound Card: This is something I would recommend you ignore for your build, most motherboards will have (usually lacking) on-board sound which should do you until you decide on an external sound card/interface, which I would recommend everyone get from your favourite music/pro-audio shop. This will lower latency, provide better conversion and give you higher quality mic preamps than internal sound cards. I like Focusrite units though there are plenty of other great alternatives out there too, and these days Pro Tools has opened up to all of them if that's your DAW program of choice (though personally I'm into Cubase).

    Storage: How much space do you need? Pick a good brand here (I like Western Digital and Seagate for platter drives) and work out what you need. Also consider getting a Solid State Drive (I like Corsair and Intel) for your operating system and DAW while saving files to your hard disk drive, this will speed everything up and will keep your audio files more secure.

    Power Supply: Another area where you really shouldn't skimp, this is the one component that has the ability to blow all the others up! I like Corsair models from 500watt upward.

    Cooling: Your case cooling is probably fine, but you might want to consider an after-market CPU cooler if you're over-clocking or just want something a little quieter. Stock cooling will be fine for most people though.

    Over-clocking: While not a part, I have mentioned it a few times here so I figure I should explain it for those not in the know. Over-clocking is when you alter any part of your computer to run faster than it would out of the factory, this allows you to get more for your money. Keep in mind that it does generate more heat, which is the single biggest killer of components, so do it slowly and make sure your cooling is up to it. There are plenty of guides for doing this online, so if you're feeling adventurous I'll let you look it up yourself!

    I think I covered most of the basics here, if there is something I forgot or you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask and I'll do my best to answer them/add them to this post. I hope this helps someone!

    *Source: http://www.dawbench.com/

    **RAM info: http://www.hardwaresecrets.com/article/26/

    Also I suggest anyone using Windows to check out Focusrite's optimization page, I find step 4 to really help people on slower machines and step 3 can be pretty useful too.
  2. sammyp


    Aug 20, 2010
    NB, Canada
    Holy crap! You're daw computer could run the enterprise and the millennium falcon at the same time!

    Great post btw.

    I must say though, I've been running sonar 8.5 on dual core 2 ghz laptop with 4 gig of ram for 4 years now with absolutely no problem.

    Having said that, I will qualify it by saying I run absolutely no virtual instruments, the odd drum sampler but mostly human performed tracks.
  3. I assemble my own, and you can get a lot of benefits from it.

    My current studio rig is a computer I just got, but my old rig, despite being slower and less in memory, had some better components on it. Plus I had some extra stuff laying around, drives and what not. So I picked the best of everything, installed it in the new computer, and let Windows update everything. Then I tweaked WinXP itself for better performance.

    Happy so far.
  4. testing1two

    testing1two Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 25, 2009
    Southern California
    I would add one very important note: build your machine around your primary software application. For example, building a Pro Tools PC requires specific approved hardware and several Windows, BIOS, & hardware optimizations to operate reliably.

    So the moral of the story is to visit the user forum of whatever application you intend to use and thoroughly research hardware compatibility and known issues before you buy anything. It will save you countless hours of frustration and troubleshooting.
  5. Ric5

    Ric5 Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 29, 2008
    I convert 4 string Rickenbackers to 5 string basses.
    A VERY important part is the audio card. Most sound cards are not optimized for recording. They are optimized for playback or gaming.

    Get an M-audio sound card if you are going to record music on your PC.
  6. Chromer


    Nov 28, 2012
    FTFY. There are plenty of good alternatives to the M-Audio products. Focusrite, Akai, RME, Steinberg, etc...
  7. An excellent point.

    Generally, any decent package will list both required and recommended specs.

    You pretty much have to have the minimum requirements(although everything will be happier if you're not riding on the bare minimum). And the recommended stuff is better to have too, than not have, if you can.

    Tailoring the computer to the software definitely helps.

    With what I have, that was mostly just a matter of configuring Windows to stay out of the way of everything else, and turning off EVERYTHING I don't need or use, including all visual effects/enhancements. Might be pretty ugly, but it's lean and mean!
  8. Venom of God

    Venom of God

    Oct 8, 2007
    It does! And thanks :)

    This was something I considered putting in and left out, as for most of us an external interface would be better suited. Will make a note of it in there now!

    Very good point! Though Pro Tools has opened up to other hardware since version 9, I believe. Do you have a link to the Windows and BIOS tweaks that Pro Tools recommends? I'll add them to the main post!
  9. seamonkey


    Aug 6, 2004
    I'd add a two year old desktop is more than enough for a decent daw at less than half the price.
  10. One thing to keep in mind is you don't need the latest, greatest, and fastest CPU either. A middle-of-the-road CPU will be adequate. It is better to spend that money on other things like a good monitor or two, lots of fast disk storage, and a backup storage system. Backups are very important ! For hard drives, a RAID-1 mirrored backup configuration can help minimize the effect of a failure. The last thing you want is to lose a bunch of work from a hardware failure so backup often. For backups there are lots of options. A NAS system also in a RAID-1 configuration can work nicely. Also remember to get yourself a decent UPS.
  11. Toptube

    Toptube Supporting Member

    Feb 9, 2009
    I haven't checked out any performance tests specific to running effects and tracking multiple samples at the same time, but I do have 11 years of professional and practical computer knowledge:

    Its true that you don't need the absolute best CPUs for this sort of thing. But if you are going to be running multiple effects at once and/or tracking multiple audio sources, I would recommend a quad core or better. So that means no Intel i3, no AMD A6, etc.

    There is no reason for an audio machine to have a discreet graphics card, unless you need multiple monitor support. Both AMD and Intel have CPUs with video built into them and both offerings will be plenty of graphics power for any audio machine's needs. any extra heat from displaying your desktop and programs via the integrated graphics is negligible. Additionally, both companies ship pretty solid heatsinks nowadays with their full retail boxed CPUs. The only extra cooling hardware you may want to look into, is a decent rear exhaust fan, if your case doesn't come with one.

    If you need multiple monitors though, then by all means, get a graphics card with multiple connections.

    I would also like to re-enforce that this type of build is one of those times when ram that is both faster and lower latency will have benefits worth considering.
    Additionally, a solid state drive to run your programs and active tracks and effects from will give you huge latency benefits.
    For your platter based storage drives, you can either use full sized desktop drives for tons of space, or you can get laptop drives to use less power and generate less heat. Laptop drives are basically just as fast as desktop drives.

    Also, since you won't need a mammoth graphics card that takes up tons of room, I would highly encourage anyone looking to build an audio desktop to look into Micro-ATX motherboards and cases, to build s small form factor machine. They are pretty liberating and if you are going to be taking the thing around to gigs, you will love it (you will love it in your house, too). stability won't be a problem because you can just lay it flat on the floor. You don't have to stand computer towers up, like a tower. Regular size or small form factor included. and then, you can just set your little monitor right on top of it!
    building a server rack is a bit overkill. I would only recommend that for bands that are extremely roudy on stage. Otherwise, its just going to cost more and be another large and heavy thing to worry about fitting into transportion and figuring out how to get up stairs, etc.
  12. Venom of God

    Venom of God

    Oct 8, 2007
    Great post! I might take some of that stuff about the video cards and move it up, the multi-monitor thing hadn't accorded to me at all! You're sure they don't generate any extra heat? I always just figured that they would!

    I will point out again also to remember that mobile CPU chipsets are different, so while an i5 is indeed a quad core CPU in a desktop system, they are a hyper-threaded dual core in a laptop/small form factor system.
  13. you can get i5 hyper-threaded ones aswell.

    There is no point in a Sound card when you will be using interfaces designed for DAC and DSP functionality. Again i would say M-Audio are not the best, Focusrite Steinburg and Motu are a few to say the least that will do a better job.

    +if you are doing big projects you will need the processing power, high load effects and many tracks in raw format means long bounce times and high ram usage.
  14. I think it's important to say that what you get/need will depend on what your needs are. Obviously, if you're doing pro or semi-pro work, or just want the most from your system, you'll want the higher level tools, which will require careful consideration and likely external devices.

    For me, and some others, all we are doing is basic stuff, for our own purposes. You can get by on less.

    I can run mine down for those whose need are similar to mine.

    I run just the PC, with built in sound card(SoundMAX digital) and video. I use mostly Audacity and the Hydrogen drum machine. The PC is a 2.4 Ghz, 1GB RAM, with Win XP. I have a custom virtual memory scheme, and cut out any program or background process I don't use, in order to get maximum performance(memory,processor, and disk space) for my actual work.

    All I am doing is one instrument at a time, with light to moderate mixing, and it works well. When I ask my old guitarist to critique my sound, he says it comes over clean, clear and powerful. Good enough for now.

    If your needs are simple, you can, with consideration, re-purpose a standard desktop machine to do a lot. Obviously, when you need to work at a higher level, you need to move up to a higher class of machine/software/externals, with all that that entails.

    Actually, I have to scrap the part about on-board video. I momentarily forgot, but to relieve the mainboard of that job, I did install a dedicated graphics card.
  15. jmain

    jmain Oo, Uhn't uh, Yes! Supporting Member

    Apr 23, 2005
    Alexandria, VA
    Intel's HD4000 integrated graphics will run dual monitors and works as good as a mid-level card; especially if it's a dedicated DAW. Just get a mobo with combo of HDMI and DVI connections - whichever works with your monitors.

    This is an excellent point. I built my own for about $1k last year. Pretty much followed a lot of the OP's logic. But you could do cheaper, especially with a 3rd generation Intel CPU given that the 4th is out.
  16. tbone0813

    tbone0813 The faithless say farewell when the road darkens.

    Aug 6, 2005
    Grand Prairie, TX.
    Are there any benefits of running your DAW on it's own smaller partition? I had heard this will cut down on the access time to files and plug-ins, etc....
  17. jmain

    jmain Oo, Uhn't uh, Yes! Supporting Member

    Apr 23, 2005
    Alexandria, VA
    I've read lots that you should do this, but don't have any measurements.

    If you only have one drive, you can partition the OS with the DAW software, then projects on its own partition and finally samples on a separate. Or just have two: OS/DAW, then samples/projects. I have my laptop set up with two.

    Also, if you have to reinstall the OS or DAW software, you won't wipe the samples and projects.

    If you're on a desktop that can take more hard drives, you could just install more hard drives. Some swear by SSD for the OS and then you can go HDD for the others to save some scratch. I have three HDDs on the desktop.
  18. This turns into a real science in itself. Every DAW manufacturer has recommendations, and all have their own peccadillos. For example, my Pro Tools set up would not run on the same drive that I stored data on. (These examples are all Win OS). Presonus Studio One, which I now use and recommend, has trouble with certain firewire cards, especially in laptops.

    For recording, I never use the internal sound card, so it doesn't have any impact on my system.

    Multiple monitors are a great idea. DAW screens take up a lot of real estate. I'm currently using two 23" monitors with my HP laptop. (i7, 8gb, 2X500gb drives). The laptop screams, even with multiple FX patched in. That's where you will use up your internal memory - reverbs especially use a lot of overhead.

    I also use my laptop for recording live, with my Presonus board. Hook the firewire, start up Capture, and I have 16 live tracks. Take 'em home and clean 'em up in the studio.
  19. Troph


    Apr 14, 2011
    Kirkland, WA
    I have to disagree with this completely. It's not the extra heat that is the problem. It's the extra system memory consumption and bandwidth usage caused by using onboard graphics.

    When using onboard/builtin graphics, all of the system's video buffers are located in main RAM. So all video rendering, including lots of silly background stuff that happens just by moving your mouse around the screen, like showing you preview thumbnails of your applications running in the taskbar, causes lots of reads and writes to the video buffers in main system memory. This activity both chews up your system RAM capacity and reduces available memory bandwidth for your other applications, such as your DAW.

    So, unless I'm building an extremely low-end system for basic e-mail and web browsing (where performance just doesn't matter), I *always* spend the extra $30 to get a low-end dedicated video card in order to offload all of that video memory I/O traffic onto the dedicated card. Even if you don't care about video performance, it will improve overall system performance due to the offloaded video memory traffic.

    Most applications don't really use much RAM or require much bandwidth. But if you do (and DAWs with tons of VSTs fit into this category), then you can benefit greatly from offloading graphics onto a dedicated card.
  20. Troph


    Apr 14, 2011
    Kirkland, WA
    No, I would not recommend this for a single physical disk. In fact, partitioning a single physical disk into multiple volumes could make things worse by spreading out data on the same disk, thereby increasing disk seek latency. For example, let's say the disk has been told to read two bits of data, first for the OS and then for the DAW. If all of the OS data is on one partition and all of the DAW data is on a different partition, then the two blocks will likely reside in a completely different physical area of the disk. So once the disk is done reading the OS data block, it will have to seek (move the read heads) to a far away portion of the disk before reading the DAW data block. By contrast, in a single-partition-per-disk scenario, it is more likely that these two bits of data will happen to be closer physically and therefore have smaller seek times. (Obviously this will depend on how much data is in the partition and how good of a job the file system is doing at block fragmentation.)

    Adding an additional physical disk will definitely improve performance. All I/O to this secondary physical disk can be performed in parallel with I/O to your primary disk. So now the scenario above is optimized; reading the OS data block sends a request to disk 1, and reading the DAW data block sends a simultaneous request to disk 2, and both the disks are reading at the same time. Now background OS I/O tasks will not affect your DAW's disk I/O, which will effectively have its own dedicated pipeline.

    How dramatic this improvement gets depends on how many background tasks your system has, which depends on your version of Windows, installed programs, configuration options, etc.